Published on June 10, 2014

Time for political elites to reinvent their role?

By Sonia Bussu

Dr Sonia Bussu is a researcher at Involve. She is passionate about increasing citizen voice in public policy (so much so that she did a PhD on the topic) and over the past few years she has been involved in several research projects on citizen participation in policy-making.


“Follow the Leader” by Andre Dluhos

Party politics is losing legitimacy, amid declining voting turnouts, little public confidence in politicians and expenses scandals. Citizens are increasingly sceptical about, and less and less deferential to, power. Yet we continue to have a very traditional understanding of leaders and followers. As politics becomes more and more personalised (see the literature on cartel parties and postdemocracy) we place increasing emphasis on leaders’ skills, charisma, moral integrity etc., more than we do on policies.

We inherently think of followers as incapable of resolving problems and for all our cynicism towards politicians we still naively dream of our leader in a shining armour that will come and rescue us. The Obama syndrome is a case in point. Well, it rarely works that way. Within complex systems characterised by high levels of uncertainty such as the ones we live in, experts and leaders can’t have all the answers. People then become key actors, since their behaviour is key to addressing the new challenges. Think of socio-demographics changes, the environmental crisis… So, if we as citizens rightly demand more say, simply following and/or blaming power is no longer acceptable. We also need to take on more responsibilities, by getting involved and making often difficult decisions together. By the same token, political leadership has to reinvent itself to facilitate public engagement.

As the concept of coproduction becomes increasingly fashionable in the policy world, we are forced to rethink concepts of leadership and followership. These are not static conditions that reside in different individuals. Instead ‘coproducers’ take different roles and lead at different points during the process, as such roles move around, like information and power.

There is a shift in focus from individual leaders to leadership. In a paper I co-authored with Koen Bartels, we refer to it as facilitative leadership (see paper here), which means it’s not just about one or two key individuals who govern the process and act as catalysts of change, but about leadership as a collective enterprise involving several people with different roles at different times.  So the important factor here is relational dynamics rather than organisational structures.

Different types of leadership, whether political, managerial (also including the third sector) or community-based, come to the fore and often work together to facilitate the most innovative collaborative processes, as each will understand different aspects of the context and the people involved. Political leadership will be in a privileged position to sponsor the process, which entails acting not only as policy entrepreneurs but as ‘guides’ in the policy process. Managerial and professional leadership can champion the process, while community leadership can help guarantee its inclusiveness. This last aspect is crucial if we want to give legitimacy and credibility to these new collaborative spaces.

Most often participatory processes have a strong institutional bias: as they’re generally opened by the public organisation that delivers a particular service, they will tend to reflect that organisation’s priorities.  The challenge for facilitative leadership is then to act as a bridge between diverse groups and interests, guaranteeing an inclusive and as far as possible neutral space where different organisational cultures can at least attempt to find a common language, coproduce a common vision and make the process sustainable.

Coproduction and all collaborative processes in general entail high levels of experimentation and risk-taking. The involvement of senior figures as sponsors can then encourage innovation by protecting the collaborative space from political and financial pressure. More importantly, political leadership has to take responsibility for risks in order to shield front-line staff from fear of failure and so manage organisational resistance to change. Now, advocating risky behaviours and admitting that initiatives have failed and need to be abandoned sounds like political suicide to most policymakers. But within increasingly complex and uncertain settings, concepts of experimentation, prototyping and learning are likely to be more effective than expensive blueprints and long-term strategies solely based on ideological positions.  Is politics ready for this paradigm shift? And are citizens?

I should end this post by stressing that any analysis of facilitative leadership has to reflect upon power dynamics and team structures. We shouldn’t be naïve about this: distributed leadership does not necessarily translate into distributed power.

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